Getting Unstuck: Issues for Intermediate ESL Pronunciation

Getting Unstuck: Issues for Intermediate ESL Pronunciation

Intermediate ESL pronunciation classes are a challenge, for both students and teachers.

For students, who have at the intermediate level already acquired a certain amount of English, the classes are a challenge in just staying motivated and persisting through the plateau to reach the next level of their English acquisition. For teachers, there is the challenge of finding a curriculum and instructional strategies that will help students move to the next level. Fortunately, there are a set of general principles to address the needs of the intermediate ESL pronunciation student.

Keep in Mind the Areas for Pronunciation Improvement

  1. 1

    Emphasis on the suprasegmentals.

    Most ESL students, even at relatively advanced levels, could still use practice with the “suprasegmentals” of pronunciation—the pronunciation that occurs across word and phrase boundaries: such as sentence and question intonation, and sentence and word stress. This is particularly true of the intermediate student, who may have strong control over the pronunciation of specific speech sounds in English but usually needs additional focus on the suprasegmentals, how those speech sounds connect and relate across syllable, word, and sentence boundaries. Activities as simple as drawing sentences from textbook dialogues to highlight for suprasegmental practice, such as the way syllables are stressed and reduced by English speakers, or the way the voice rises then falls with information questions, is enormous help at this level.

  2. 2

    Refining individual discrete points of pronunciation.

    Most students at the intermediate level with continue to have difficulty in pronouncing certain individual sounds as well—the “r,” for example, or the “th.” The instructor may use a first-day diagnostic to pinpoint individual speech sounds many students have trouble with and plan several weeks of instruction around improving instruction on the sounds that the class seems to struggle most with, contrasting the target sound with other similar sounds (/th/ with /t/, for example) or highlighting the sound in dialogue.

  3. 3

    Academic or business vocabulary in tandem with pronunciation instruction.

    Often students are bored at the intermediate level as they keep getting the same recycled survival English vocabulary/curriculum over and over when what they really need is to boost their business and academic vocabularies. This is the chance to improve those vocabularies by introducing words for business and university and at the same time work on pronunciation. Find out from students what their educational/career goals are, and this should dictate this part of the curriculum. If students are mostly business majors, for example, five to ten words related to business practices can be introduced each week. Each time a new business word is introduced, there should be extensive analysis of the word: its sounds, its stress pattern, what phrases it typically occurs in, and the suprasegmentals related to the phrase.

  4. 4

    Academic and business conversations in tandem with pronunciation.

    The kinds of conversations that occur in the general community are also different from those that occur in academia and business, as well. Teaching students the kinds of conversations that take place at informal staff meetings, for example, or in a class discussion, will also be a great place to work on the suprasegmentals of English, the stress and intonation. Again using student majors as a guide, give out discussion topics at least once a week related to student majors (for example, what are the critical portions of a business proposal?), and observe as students discuss the topic. Note areas they might work on for continued improvement.

  5. 5

    Simulation and role play.

    The intermediate level is a stage at which students can be expected to be more confident in their language use and able to use it extemporaneously, without planning and prompting, the way it is used in most actual language situations. Exercises such as teaming students up and just giving them a situation, either verbally or by passing out cards, such as returning an item at a department store, with one student acting as the salesperson and the other as a customer, are appropriate at this level. Key to the strategy is just letting students think about and perhaps minimally plan the roleplay for a small set time--for example, one minute--and then doing the exercise. Again, this mimics an actual language situation, where we might think for a short time about what to say; we do not generally plan out extensively, or write down, a short conversation. The instructor can watch the role plays and offer brief, global feedback on how comprehensible the students’ pronunciation was: e.g., “Be careful about dropped word endings” or “Work on your sentence stress.”

  6. 6


    The intermediate level, again, is the time when students should be able to demonstrate some confidence in using English in front of groups. An end of term project of a presentation is therefore appropriate for this level. Have students present on something they know how to do, want to share, and have strong feelings about: for example, how to do origami or the music of a specific region. Students may bring in visuals and props, and students should be taught note taking skills. Presenting students will be graded on overall comprehensibility as well as discrete points of pronunciation.

  7. 7

    Send students into the community.

    The intermediate level is the perfect place to send students from the safety of the classroom out in the community to practice their English skills. Send students to the quad, to the cafeteria, to coffee shops and stores, to practice their English. Give them a specific assignment: start a conversation with at least one person about a campus activity, for example. Or talk to three separate people about needed improvements in the school cafeteria. Finally, have students call a partner in the class or the instructor and have a short conversation. Unclear pronunciation becomes very apparent over the phone, and students will usually get feedback in the form of “Huh?” and “Sorry, what did you say?” Have students report back to the class, as applicable, on their success, how well they were understood, and how well the conversation went.

Teaching intermediate ESL classes in general can be a challenge; this holds true for pronunciation classes. However, by considering the level and student need, instructors can build a meaningful, motivating curriculum that will challenge students and help them progress to the next level.

What are some of the methods and materials you include in intermediate pronunciation?

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